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Pursuant to the treaty with the Great Britain in 1783, the territory of the United States after the revolution consisted of the New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. Beyond these territories, the people of the United States cannot set foot on territories as these territories belonged to the King of Spain. However, there had always been a desire among the people to traverse the unknown territories beyond the Mississippi.
After the war had ended, the people of the United States which had just gained independence from Great Britain wanted to move more freely across the frontiers or the unknown. The frontier is known in the American history as the territory which was the meeting point of the settled territory and the unoccupied land. They wanted to exploit the abundant resources that are beyond the territories which they previously knew. Many of those who wanted to explore these territories often marveled at the vast tracts of land which until then had not been discovered. William C. Davis had described the grandness of the frontier as God’s canvass. According to him, it would take the European adventurers, opportunists, settlers, and empire builders more than a century to understand the massive landscape in the West. (William C. Davis, 2005, p.7).
II. Causes of the Frontier Experience
Aside from the desire to explore, there are many reasons for the America’s frontier experience or the settlement to new territories which were previously unexplored. The first is the desire for commerce and development. It must be emphasized that President Thomas Jefferson was determined to explore the previously unknown territories. At the time, he sent a secret message to Congress calling for an expedition into the area west of the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The message was considered secret since the territories where the exploration was about to be conducted belonged to France.
Jefferson had said that “...explore the Missouri River and such principal stream of it, as, by its course and communication with the waters of the Pacific Ocean, may offer the most direct and practical water communication across the continent, for the purposes of commerce. The President could not have been more clear in his directions”(“Westward Expansion” p.1). Fortunately, Napoleon of France offered the Louisiana Territory to the United States for $15,000,000 which increased the United States territory.
It was not only the government which had an interest in the frontier. Many of the settlers who ventured into the unexplored regions in the West were in search of gold and silver. It can be recalled that gold was discovered in California in 1849. When the gold was exhausted in California, prospectors started to explore the mountains and the deserts in the West in search of new gold and silver mines. The exploration was very successful as it led to the discovery of new gold mines almost every year. For instance, there was the gold discovery in the Pike’s Peak area of Colorado in 1849 (Joseph R. Conlin, 2009, p.520). At the same time, gold miners in Nevada discovered the richest silver ores every to have been discovered (Joseph R. Conlin, 2009, p.520). The find was followed by new discoveries of gold and silver between 1857 and 1890. The discovery of gold in California triggered the migration of thousands of people in the West hoping to strike it big in the mineral-rich territories in the West. Miners flocked to Idaho, Montana, Dakota and other territories where gold was discovered. As the wave of immigration to these territories continued, lands which were previously unpopulated were suddenly filled with people. Dance halls, saloons, bars with prostitutes were built to cater to the needs of the miners. In fact, those who really strike it rich in these gold-rich areas were the individuals who provided the miners with what they need.
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While many were attracted by the opportunities for wealth, others were just dazed by the promises of adventure in the West. Many young men and women thought that the life in the West was filled with adventure. They were attracted to ranching and raising of cattle. They were drawn to the cowboy life. The cowboy life, however, did not only involve riding on horses and racing through the vast tracts of land with the horses. In fact, the life of a cowboy was very difficult involving two annual roundups and successive trips to the market. Some of the duties of cowboys involve riding to the range to bring the scattered cattle together; selecting, roping and branding the best cattle; dehorning and examining cattle for infections; preventing the cattles from going on a stampede. The cowboys also had to watch their cattles day in and day out for fourteen hours which was very grueling.
The frontier attracted not only the farmers, miners, ranchers but even the former African American slaves. These former slaves who had worked for most of their slaves moved to the unexplored territories of the West in search for a new beginning. As a result, many African Americans moved to Oklahoma and other parts of the West. The continued migration resulted in the creation of all black towns which had thousands of residents. Many of the former African American slaves became farmers, ranchers and miners. For the freed slaves realized that their work as landowners was no different from what they had done in the past where they cultivated the land owned by others. Many of the freed slaves become homesteaders in the frontier.
Another caused for the further expansion westward was the passage and enactment of the Homestead Act of 1862. In fact, the Homestead Act of 1862 was considered to be the primary reason for the immigration to the frontier. The law was passed to promote the expansion of settlers westward and the exploration and cultivation of the vast tracts of land in the west. Under the law, 160 acres or 65 hectares of unoccupied public land to each homesteader on payment of a nominal fee after five years of residence. Settlers who have resided on the land could also ask apply for complete ownership of the land for a nominal fee of $1.25 an acre. While the government earned substantial revenues for the law, the main purpose of the same is to encourage the settlement of farmers in the west.
As a result of the passage of the law, people from all walks of life headed to the west and started to file land claims in search of opportunity and wealth. Farmers who had realized that the east was becoming populated moved westward in search of more fertile farms and soil. City dwellers who had become tired of the population in the east started to move west in search of areas where there is less population and where the population is less dense. Even the African American slaves started to take advantage of the new law for purpose of acquiring a land that they can call their own. Jason Porterfield stated that the Homestead Act of 1862 was “a shining success that strengthened the country and provided opportunities for many Americans. Because of the act, millions of acres of prairie became prosperous farms. People who had never tried farming found themselves digging wells, building home and harvesting crops.” (Jason Porterfield, 2005, p.5)
III. Effects of the Frontier Experience
The settlers were the ones primarily responsible for the development of the virgin territories of the West. They were the ones cultivated and developed the lands and took advantage of the vast natural resources found in these territories. While the settlers had an impact on the new territories in the frontier, Frederick Jackson Turner was one of the theorists who advocated that the frontier experience also had a profound impact on the American culture. According to him, the values of independence, self-reliance and love of freedom were part of American culture. The sense of unlimited opportunity which the land brought to the settlers had a profound impact on the American culture. Turner added that the “coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and acquisitiveness; that practical inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients; that masterful grasp of material things... that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism" have all contributed to the formation of the American culture.
While the settlement of the West brought innumerable benefits for the American people, it also had an adverse impact on the country. First, with the influx of people and the development of the territory, many outlaws took advantage of the new-found reaches in the West. It was not only the miners, farmers, and ranchers who saw opportunity in the West but event the outlaws. The outlaws took advantage of the railroad that crossed the vast open territory which carried money, goods and passengers. The outlaws easily found out the schedule of arrival of the trains. Because of the limited number of crew members of the train they were powerless against the outlaws who were superior in number and carried guns. These robbers which were on horses would jump onto a moving train. Once on board they would release the rail cars from the main train. Robbery of trains had become widespread resulting in several outlaws becoming known in history such as Jesse James. These train robberies continued until the time came that they owners of these trains the government officials hired special agents to improve the defenses of these trains.
Another significant impact of the frontier experience was the displacement of the native Indians which previously occupied these territories in the West. Decades before the first settlers arrived in the West, the great ancestors of the Indians who migrated from Siberia traveled through vast distances of land to settle in what is known as the West (William C. Davis, 2005, p.7). The native Indians lived in these territories and treated them as their own. However, because of the desire of the government to explore these territories, many Indian were forcefully displaced from these territories. Initially, the native Indians fought for their territories. However, they soon realized that their bows and arrows were no match against the guns of the new settlers.
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